German cuisine. In terms of spices that boils down to: salt, pepper, parsley, dill and chives. At first glance our native cuisine isn’t exactly teeming with intense aromas. Look a bit closer and you’ll see that alongside the most commonly imported spices and herbs, such as oregano and rosemary, two in particular have become so prevalent as to be part and parcel of German cuisine: curry and paprika, chiefly in powder form. Salad, scrambled eggs, pasta — there’s nothing these spices haven’t been tried on. Most prominent here, of course, is the world-famous currywurst. Berlin and Hamburg fought over it for quite some time, each claiming to be the culinary milestone’s birthplace. How did curry and paprika manage to become so commonplace while being so adverse to the typical German palate?
Let’s start with a widespread misconception. What is understood as curry in German cuisine, curry powder, that is, is actually a modification of the Indian masala. Masala is a spice mix used in various curries. In India, curry itself is a kind of sauce used to preserve meat, fish, vegetables and cheese. Masala powder is available in all kinds of varieties, one of which is our European curry powder. It usually contains turmeric (yellow in color), coriander, cayenne pepper, cardamom, ginger, saffron and lemon grass.
British colonialists stumbled upon these flavors in 18th-century India and adapted the mix substantially to the rather mild European palate. The renowned Indian street curries of the time (and today) would have bowled over even the boldest of Brits. The newly discovered spices radiated outward from England to the rest of Europe. While curry soon became a national dish in England, it needed a bit longer to establish itself as a mainstream flavor in Germany. In 1949, Herta Heuwer, a native Berliner, started selling bratwurst served in a sauce made of tomato paste, curry powder and Worcestershire sauce in her Charlottenburg snack bar. She called it “chillup,” and registered the name as a trademark at the Berlin Patent Office. Or so the story goes: believable enough to warrant a plaque in her honor where her establishment used to be.
That was the catalyst for the unbridled German excitement for intense spices. For decades currywurst has managed to hold its ground as the undisputed number one of German concessions. These days it’s not uncommon to spice up your currywurst with a pinch of paprika, bringing us to Germans’ second favorite spice.
Type “Paprikapulver” (paprika powder) into the highly trafficked recipe platform, chefkoch.de, and you get over 25,000 search results. From pasta salad and roast chicken to egg muffins and nacho cheese dip, the list covers everything you could possibly consider food. Christopher Columbus introduced the bell pepper, native to Central and South America, to Spain in the 15th century; it then gained prominence throughout Europe, with high levels of cultivation in Hungary where paprika was used as a cheap pepper substitute. Seeing that nowadays Germans season excessively with paprika, the bell pepper had a pretty rough start in Germany. And it’s only been in use in German cooking post-WWII.
Why then does paprika enjoy such popularity? A scarcity of pepper isn’t the reason. All the same, it’s very healthy. Paprika powder contains lots of vitamin C, capsaicin, zinc, calcium and carotene, making it good for circulation and a stimulant of intestinal activity. Yet, its health benefits don’t seem to have been the most decisive element in the development of German pasta salad. Questionable, too, is the extent to which taste was a factor. If you’ve ever tried it, you know.
Was it a coincidence that both spices increased in popularity after the Second World War? Perhaps people were yearning for something new. Something exotic to transport them, via the palate, to another world, away from the ruin and loss. And maybe over the years the initial excitement solidified into habit. Old habits die hard, and that’s how unfamiliar spices “went native” in Germany.